Call me crazy, but moms are becoming nicer. There used to be a time when kids could spend hours regaling one another with mean mom stories. I know it used to be a favorite pastime of mine.
"My mom is the meanest. Listen to this …" I brushed aside my big ‘80s feathered hair for emphasis. "She wouldn't let me come over today until after my homework was finished and after I cleaned the kitchen," I complained to my girlfriend.
"If you think your mom is mean, Joanne, listen to this one ..."
Legendary stories have gathered over time—too many to recount. My parenting style has been molded and shaped by them. As far as I was concerned, my mom was the meanest of all. She wanted to know who my friends were and what I was watching on TV. She upheld curfews, expected me to do well in school, and paid close attention to what I wore.
Mean mom flashback
I was hoping to slip out the front door before my parents caught a glimpse of my outfit. I was a typical 16-year-old, and I just knew they wouldn't be able to hear the whisper of "cool" announcing my presence. Nor would they understand that my black stretch pants made a statement.
Unfortunately, I had never learned the art of Navy SEAL stealth operations, and my mom intercepted my exit. "Sweetheart, what are you wearing?"
Questions asking the obvious are the bane of every teenager's existence. "Black pants," I blurted, searching for an escape route.
"Those are not black pants. Those are skintight." She called for backup. "George!"
Dad is a former U.S. Marine, so I knew he would be up for a battle. I would lose this skirmish. Mom would make sure of it.
"What in the world are those?" He looked down at my legs, his face scrunched up as if he were in the presence of something extraterrestrial.
My earlier confidence squeaked out as a pathetic question hoping for approval. "Black pants?"
With Dad as her wingman, my one-and-only "mean mom" began her rant: "No daughter of mine …"
Yep, here we go. The "no daughter of mine" speech.
As you can imagine, my response was predictable. I stomped off to my room and whimpered over my shoulder, "Mom. You are so mean!" Needless to say, I never left the house in those skintight stretch pants.
Fast-forward 30 years. Yesterday, while at church, this memory came rushing back. The beautiful young singer on stage seemed to have discovered my thigh-strangling pants from my teenage years. Her parents are apparently much nicer than mine and let her leave the house.
I debated with myself, Poor thing. Does she realize how skintight those are? Is that what I looked like 30 years ago? Stop it, Joanne, you're being old-fashioned. Those pants are in style again.
My thoughts were interrupted by my extremely cool 17-year-old son. Right in the middle of a worship song, he leaned down and whispered to my ear, "That girl should not be wearing those pants." Once again, confirmation that my very own mean mom had been right.
What does "mean" really mean?
The definition of the word mean is to be unkind or malicious. Though you might cringe at being defined this way, it's exactly how your children feel you are behaving when you keep them from what they want, enforce daily chores, or thwart their Friday night plans.
This is the moment the parent-child language barrier begins. You see, a mean mom defines the word mean quite a bit differently.
A mean mom keeps her word when it's hard.
A mean mom gives, models, and expects respect.
A mean mom knows her child's friends and where they live.
A mean mom instills dinner times, bedtimes, and curfews.
A mean mom treads water longer than her child can make it rain.
A mean mom never makes excuses for her child's strengths or weaknesses.
A mean mom doesn't let her own fears overrule her child's freedoms.
A mean mom sees the adult her child can be and inspires until he or she catches the vision.
A mean mom asks for forgiveness for her mistakes.
A mean mom loves passionately, encourages openly, and behaves righteously.
And if she's married a mean mom puts her husband before her child.
In the context of mean mom, the word mean can be defined much differently between mom and child. So begins the expansion of that communication gap you've heard about. What a son or daughter sees as malicious or unkind, a mean mom sees as keeping protective boundaries and inspiring good character traits, so she makes no excuses for uncomfortable situations that are fueled by a loving boundary.
Children don't understand boundaries as being helpful or for their lasting good. Their minds can't wrap around anything more than their immediate wants and needs at this very nanosecond. This is where mean moms dig in and remember they are training each little one to overcome obstacles, never quit, and never, ever give up.
A mean mom's mission statement is this: I'm not raising a child. I'm raising an adult. This mission statement becomes her mantra and reminds her of the ultimate goal: to work herself out of a job.
The wrong kind of mean
When I shared my idea of a mean mom book with a friend, she expressed concern, "My mom was incredibly mean. Not the mean you're talking about. She was so disciplined and hurtful. The scars she's left affect me still. She's the reason I'm such a pushover with my girls today. I tend to be a marshmallow mom. I know I need to be better at keeping boundaries, but I'm so afraid I'll become like my mother that I cave every time. I don't want my kids to hate me like I hated my mom."
It's sadly true. There are moms who have a genetic mean streak. Oftentimes victims of their own parents' physical or emotional abuse, they pass on discouragement and warped parenting disciplines that mold their children in painful ways.
Let me be very clear here. This is not the kind of mean I'm talking about. The mean mom I'm talking about loves her children more than she disciplines them. Joy is what permeates her home, and faith is the foundation and the groundwork she is laying.
Even when a mother is kind, caring, and understanding, she looks mean to her children when she lays down a boundary or rule. What is considered mean in the eyes of a 4-year-old is considered wise in the eyes of a 40-year-old. This is the kind of mean I mean.
"To tell you the truth …"
Ask most adults over the age of 30 if their parents were mean, and you'll get lots of different answers. I posed this very question to my girlfriend.
"Yes, I thought my mom was very mean." Gina, a mother of two, answered the question as she cut my hair. "She wouldn't let me stay out late at night and needed to know my friends' first and last names. But, to tell you the truth …" She stopped snipping and held her scissors midair. "I don't think she was mean enough." A tiny smile etched my face. "She was actually pretty naïve. She should've been meaner."
Adapted from The Mean Mom's Guide to Raising Great Kids by Joanne Kraft. Published by Leafwood Publishers, copyright ©2015. Used with permission.
1. Read "Three Cheers for the 'Meanest Mom'" and other FamilyLife articles written to mothers.
2. Listen as author Joanne Kraft explains to FamilyLife Today® listeners why a mean mom encourages openly, loves passionately, and knows that being called "mean" by her child is often a compliment.
3. Do you struggle to instill loving boundaries and become discouraged when your child doesn't like you for them? Order a copy of The Mean Mom's Guide to Raising Great Kids. It will encourage you to stand your ground when childrearing gets tough.